A Love Letter to Gardening
I was a relatively late bloomer when I first discovered gardening, falling accidentally into the role of plant mother when my sister gave me an Aloe vera plant to mind. Little did I know, the simple act of caring for this new addition to my world would spark the beginning of the greatest love affair of my life. That tender succulent continues to be a member of my ever-expanding plant collection and I’m happy to announce we are just about to have another litter of pups almost twenty years later. Looking back to those early days, I must have been searching for something to give my life deeper meaning. It was a time when I had just returned from a heady year in Australia and I was somewhat lost. I had always had a love hate relationship with learning and after completing an unrelated college course had vowed to stay out of the classroom for good. Fast forward almost two decades and who knew I would end up not only teaching this incredible discipline but sharing my knowledge and enthusiasm with people from all walks of life.
Once I started learning about this fascinating new world, I was excited and baffled in equal measure at how insatiable my new-found thirst for knowledge was. Before long, I was devouring Latin plant names made up of the genus and specific epithets describing all manner of features from sempervirens for evergreen and hirsuta for downy to those describing colours such as aurea for golden and alba for white. Not only that, but this fascinating binomial system also gave hints to the origins of those plants hailing from far flung lands like japonica or Japan and capensis relating to the southern cape of Africa. Closer to home, it gave me a link to our own natural heritage with hibernia describing plants native to our own verdant land and I was hooked!
Having the privilege of living in a temperate climate with distinct seasons only made me fall deeper in love with the plant kingdom. All of sudden, I was so much more aware of the gentle ebb and flow of the year. Beginning with the tentative transition between late winter and early spring earmarked by speckled faces of hellebores nodding their heads over delicate gatherings of snowdrops and winter aconites. Once the days started to elongate, the gardens burst into a cacophony of trumpeted daffodils followed by tulips that would have caused riots during the mania of the 17th century. All the while blossoming cherries, magnolia then apples all sang as the sun warmed the soil. Once the summer rolled around and the colder days were but a distant memory we were entertained by a heady, vibrant array of colours and the summer came to a crescendo with the fiery reds and yellows of autumn leaves before the deepest of slumbers heralded the winter. It was the rhythm and familiarity that got me every time. I loved knowing that even if times were particularly tough that there was always some botanical treat lined up and simply waiting for its cue to put on a show.
We are fortunate enough to have such a lengthy growing season delivering horticultural jewels all throughout the year as a result of our temperate climate. This is due to the direct influence of the gulf stream traversing the Atlantic Ocean warming our little isle and without it, we would be plunged into much cooler conditions. As a guardian of living collections in various guises, I became all the more aware of the influence this current had on our growing season. Spending most of my outdoor activity on the eastern side of the country, I soon discovered just how little rain we got in comparison to our friends in the west. People often asked “Oh how can you work outdoors? It’s so wet all the time.” And try as I might to convince them to the contrary, they had already escaped to warm and dry environments indoors and were happy to stay there.
Regardless of how the weather affected day-to-day activities, as a plant lover I became intrinsically connected to the wildlife around me. Territorial robins would appear to be curious but were in actual fact sizing up the competition and sneaking the occasional worm I unearthed whilst digging the soil. More often than not, I found myself stopped in my tracks listening to the raucous concert of a tiny wren no bigger than a golf ball. Wildlife, in particular birds, go hand in hand with gardening and I can recall numerous occasions when I have been enthralled by their activity. I have watched goldcrests gather cobwebs from eves in glasshouses, wrapping tufts around their beak to pad out their nests. When those nests were full of young, I found broken shells where mink or pine martin had indulged in yokey, rich snacks. I have found dazed, fluffy raven chicks who had fallen from turrets in castles wondering where mammy was and watched in awe as a blackbird fended off a sparrowhawk in mid-flight. Higher up the food chain, I’ve watched motionless as hares stood tall on hind legs preparing to fight for dominance and foxes came out at night in search of supper. Many of these experiences were witnessed in solitude but have made my life so rich in memories as to fill me with joy each time they are recalled.
Through thick and thin, gardening has been my constant. When both my parents were diagnosed with cancer at the same time, I was fortunate enough to be working in a century’s old private estate, tucked away in west Dublin. Spending my days surrounded by the calming influence of nature, provided me with some solace and allowed my mind to escape from the turmoil of our living reality. Those months were some of the most difficult in memory, yet the forces that be ensured I was destined to spend the days at least, distracted by the calming beauty of colourful, scented blossoms complimented by a constant variety of bird song. It was gardening that provided me with the time and space to contemplate those moments of heavy-heartedness and grief and it helped me to come to terms with my father’s eventual passing. Years later, I would discover many people who came to take my courses had also been recently bereaved. They had unwittingly turned to a pursuit which taught them how to care for life even if only through tending to plants.
Through horticulture, I discovered invaluable life skills such as mindfulness, patience and hope. Chat with any seasoned gardener and they will say how they never tire of the excitement and anticipation they feel once a recently sown batch of seeds have sprouted and are busy pushing their seed leaves up through the soil. That tentative period of observation can become somewhat of an obsession with those photosynthesising babies often being molly coddled way beyond any human ever would be. There was however, nothing quite like watching them grow from those delicate little seedlings into something as grand as a beaming sunflower towering overhead or a climbing sweet pea billowing out scent for months on end. It never failed to fill me with immeasurable joy and pride that the nurture and care I had provided helped it along the way.
These days, I am filled with joy when my own son delights in tasting various fruits and vegetables we have grown together and I hope that he is able to garner as much enjoyment as I have throughout his life. This is the reason I continue to do what I do to encourage others to become acquainted with the natural world through gardening and all it has to offer. Even in the midst of all the chaos we have endured over these past twelve months, there was always this constant that could provide purpose and evoke emotional clarity when it felt like the world was burning around us.
One thing I know for certain, and that’s something that is in short supply right now, is that this year I will sow some seeds, watch them grow and look forward to repeating it all again next year and I hope you do too.